Let the speculation begin
Mon January 19, 2009 7:52 pm

Committee appointments will be the first real test of the Straus speakership. How many of the 149 members can he satisfy? Here are some of the problems he will face:

—Straus has said that there will be no retaliation against Craddick loyalists. Good luck in keeping that promise. The ABCs are going to want to send some folks to the penalty box. (A theoretical question: Should we still refer to the ABCs by that designation, if "C" is no longer a factor? We can't refer to them as "insurgents" any more, either, since they are now insiders.) It is a lot easier to handle committee assignments when you start with an enemies' list. You can consign 25 to 30 members to oblivion. In Craddick's case, the number was much higher, since most Democrats were excluded from major committees unless they were protected by seniority.

—Will seniority apply to Appropriations? Craddick revoked seniority on the committee because the panel he inherited from Laney was Democrat-heavy. Straus inherits a Republican-heavy committee. One of the things the Democrats are going to want from a Straus speakership is fair representation on major committees. To achieve that on Appropriations, Straus is going to have to follow Craddick's lead and do away with seniority on Appropriations so that Gallego and Coleman can return to the panel. But he also needs to retain some of the experienced hands who know the budget.

—Can he satisfy the ambitions of the former ABCs? Those who were Craddick chairs (Pitts, Keffer, Solomons, Cook, Eissler) may want more prominent positions; those who weren't (Geren, Kuempel, McCall, Merritt, Jones) will want a gavel or more.

The big prizes are Appropriations, Calendars, and Ways & Means. I'll say who I think the leading contenders are—or, more to the point, ought to be, for these and other committees. This is not a complete list; I have tried to pick those committees that have the most impact on public policy. I have made certain assumptions: (1) The individual ABCs will get whatever they want, subject to internal conflicts within the group; (2) Early pledgers to Straus will do better than late pledgers when it comes to chairmanships; (3) Democrats will get the chairmanships of second-tier committees that are important to their party (e.g., Elections, Environmental Regulation, Higher Ed); (4) Returning chairs who performed at a high level will be retained; (5) Some returning chairs are headed for the penalty box.

Speaker pro tem: Senfronia Thompson

Appropriations: Pitts (chair in 2005) or Branch, with Keffer as a dark horse. Eiland as vice-chair would be in position to secure funding for the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Calendars: Geren. He has emerged as Straus's go-to guy. He is clearly going to be a major player this session, if not at Calendars, then in another high-profile position.

Ways & Means: McCall. The word is that Keffer's interests are said to lie elsewhere. Oliveira, who chaired the committee in the Laney years, could end up here. If Straus does not merge Local Ways & Means with the main committee, another chairmanship is available.

Public Education: The Eissler/Hochberg pairing is too good to break up.

Elections: Joaquin Castro or Trey Martinez-Fischer. This is one of the committees that the Democrats really want to control. Anchia, a veteran of the Voter I.D. battle with penalty-box-bound Leo Berman, is the obvious choice, but his skills could be put to better use elsewhere. Because of Dallas's concerns with coal plants, I have him as a possibility for Environmental Reg; other contenders there could be Menendez and Strama. Castro or Martinez-Fischer could provide a decent burial for the Voter I.D. bill.

Insurance: This is a big year for insurance issues. The department has just been through Sunset review, and there is considerable displeasure with the agency's regulation of the industry (or lack thereof), especially on the D side of the aisle. Smithee has chaired the committee forever, with a high level of confidence from members, but insurance is Straus's profession and he will have his own priorities. If Straus decides to make a change, Eiland (a coastal legislator who has concerns about windstorm insurance) and Taylor (ditto) are possibilities.

Public Health: Jodie Laubenberg inherited the chairmanship when Dianne Delisi resigned from the House. She is unlikely to get the job on a permanent basis. A health care lobbyist tells me that Veronica Gonzales has the inside track. Garnet Coleman and Vicki Truitt are other contenders.

Culture, Recreation, and Tourism: Current chair Hilderbran should keep the position, unless Kuempel wants it. If he does, scratch penalty box candidate Sid Miller at Agriculture and Livestock and pencil in Hilderbran.

Environmental Regulation: Dennis Bonnen has been a controversial chairman; two years ago he bottled up a host of clear air bills, promising a comprehensive bill in 2009. I doubt that he will get that opportunity. I would not be surprised to see Kuempel, a member of the committee, move up to chairman, although this change in leadership may not produce a change in philosophy. If Kuempel doesn't want it, Straus, who is pretty green himself (no pun about inexperience intended), could turn to a green Democrat such as Anchia or Menendez or Strama. As is the case with Elections, Environmental Reg is one of the committees the D's would dearly love to control.

Energy Resources: Rick Hardcastle is the chairman, but if Tommy Merritt wants it, he gets it.

Economic Development: Joe Deshotel was chairman last session. His vice-chairman was Joe Straus. I'm betting Deshotel stays.

Business and Industry: Helen Giddings is the current chairman. This will be a test of whether the Craddick D's get punished or not. If the answer is yes, Gary Elkins, the vice-chair and an on-again, off-again ABC over the years, and an early Straus pledge, is a likely candidate.

Criminal Jurisprudence: As was the case with Giddings, Pena is a former Craddick D whose fate will be closely watched. The committee mangled Jessica's Law last session and Debbie Riddle had to be rescued on the floor. Dunnam could do a bang-up job as chairman, but he may prefer to be an ordinary member on more important committees.

Transportation: The chairmanship was left vacant by Krusee's retirement. If Straus wants change at TxDOT (hear! hear!), he should install Joe Pickett as chairman. Pickett was an early and prescient critic of TxDOT, and he is one of the three most knowledgeable members in the House on transportation issues. But Straus's chief of staff, Clyde Alexander, a former Transportation chairman, was close to TxDOT, and Joe Krier, husband of Straus transition team member, was an advocate for transportation issues. I'm afraid Pickett won't make the cut (shame! shame!) and a TxDOT apologist will get the job. Wayne Smith, a veteran of the moratorium wars of 2007, may be the choice.

Higher Education: Patrick Rose. Holdover chair Geanie Morrison, who passed tuition deregulation in 2003, won't make the cut. Rose, who has served on the committee, is from Hays County (Texas State), which makes him neutral in the rivalries involving UT, A&M, and Texas Tech. This is an important committee for Democrats because of the Top Ten Percent rule, which UT wants to see revised.

Corrections: Jerry Madden was a great chairman in 2007. He should stay.

Regulated Industries: Burt Solomons. It remains to be seen whether this will remain a separate committee or whether Straus will bring it back into State Affairs. I would prefer to see State Affairs reconstituted as it used to be, with some of the best members in the Legislature handling some of the most difficult issues. Chairman Phil King is surely headed for the penalty box, so the position will be vacant. Solomons had to deal with regulatory issues on Sunset, which led to a tussle with King. Sylvester Turner would be an equally fine choice, if the Democrats are not bent on punishing former Craddick D's.

Human Resources: Naishtat may regain the chairmanship he lost when the R's took over.

Pensions & Investments: John Otto. He can count. However, Straus may want Vicki Truitt to remain as chair. This could be a very important position because of the vulnerability of the two big pension funds to the economic crisis. If Straus (or Truitt) want to make a switch, Otto can figure out what is going on.

Licensing and Administrative Procedure: ABK (Anybody but Kino, including Delwin Jones).

Financial Institutions: If Otto doesn't go to Pensions & Investments, this is another good landing place for somebody who can count.

Civil Practices: Cook did a great job as chairman last session and should stay, if that is what he wants to do.

Natural Resources: Hamilton is the current chairman. I don't like to see East Texas members heading this committee. They're rural, and they have excess water, and they don't want to share it with the cities. Gallego and Gattis are current members, and either could handle it, but I assume each would prefer to be on Appropriations. West Texas always has major water issues, and this may be the perfect spot for Keffer.

These are all the chairmanships that I am going address. I don't care who chairs Juvenile Justice or General Investigating.

I have left some big names on the sidelines. Gallego could handle any of several committees—Natural Resources, for one—but I assume he would rather be on Appropriations. The same assumption applies to Coleman, Gattis, and Kolkhorst.

The good news is that there is plenty of talent in the House, if the speaker's primary interest lies in deploying talent rather than settling scores.

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